Though The Chinese Puzzle is not the first novel I have read by John Street (written under his Miles Burton pen name), this is the first I have read since starting this blog. Previously I had read Death in the Tunnel which was reissued a few years back but I must confess that I was not much of a fan. Still, I felt that he had enough promise that I picked up several of the ebooks that were available at that time and they have been sat on my Kindle waiting patiently for me to give him another try.
The Chinese Puzzle begins with a strange case of a fight between two Chinese men in the early hours of the morning, the visitor attacking his host with a hammer and attempting to steal some money from him. While this case is being investigated, the body of a third Chinese man is discovered in the visitor’s hometown and is identified as the same man the Police believe they have in custody for the hammer attack.
There is a lot of very fair debate around this book in relation to its portrayal of its Chinese characters and culture. While it is important to address those questions, I think it would be helpful to begin by establishing what Street was attempting to do and why he thought that this might make for an interesting premise for a story.
What defines The Chinese Puzzle is that it is a story about an investigation within a closed community. Our investigators are put in a position where they are outsiders, unable to communicate with several of the suspects except through an interpreter. While Merrion professes himself to have some knowledge of Chinese culture (which I think it is safe to say some of us may feel is a highly debatable point), Inspector Arnold has very little awareness of Chinese culture at all and so he requires guidance throughout the investigation.
In a story of this type the authority figure or detective will be an outsider to the community seeking what they perceive to be justice for a member of that community, potentially against their interests or wishes. I don’t think Street drives home that point particularly effectively but that theme is certainly present in the final few chapters of the book as Merrion seems to acknowledge that what is a legally correct outcome may not necessarily constitute justice.
Stories like Witness, The Wicker Man and the Morse episode Greeks Bearing Gifts show that this can be an effective source of tension and intrigue but I think that these also demonstrate that this setup perhaps is more suited to a story in the thriller mode than a traditional detective puzzle story.
Among the problems that I think undermine the novel is that it will quickly become clear to the reader that the author is leading them. Once aware of that, the reader should notice how they are being led and then, by implication, they ought to be able to deduce why this is happening without any consideration of the facts of the case.
Unfortunately a consequence of this is that the resolution, when it is provided, is unlikely to come of much of a surprise beyond a question of motive. On that matter, I felt that Street provides an interesting and credible explanation that drew on the political climate of that period (which is why I would not agree with the idea some suggested in the comments on one of those posts that Street had dusted off a much older manuscript), encouraging the reader to consider an alternate perspective on events. I think though that some of that is merely potential – those issues are raised but Street never fully develops them or takes them to their logical conclusion.
The problem is that while I think Street’s narrative references tensions within the Chinese community at that period in a potentially interesting way that would differentiate itself from the ‘Yellow Peril’ stories of earlier decades, the way he tells that story is enormously problematic for a modern reader. While Street plays off and subverts some expectations the reader may have, such as not giving us the opium syndicate that is mooted at one point, he unfortunately then goes on to present us with other stereotypes and negative views.
At this point I have to reference that the book’s portrayal of its Chinese characters was the subject of debate a couple of years ago sparked by a critical review posted by Noah Stewart as part of his 100 Books To Die Before You Read series that highlighted racist attitudes and stereotypes that run throughout the novel. Curtis Evans wrote a response discussing racism and the Golden Age and a few days later reviewed the novel himself, noting that Street wrote stronger works.
I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this review check out those posts if they have any passing interest in this title. I think perhaps one of the most important points Noah makes is actually in his own comments section where he says that he felt Street was not trying to actively put forward racist views but the story reflects a general patronizing attitude typical of an earlier age.
My own view would echo those expressed in Noah’s comment. The structure of this story and the themes Street adopts lead me to believe that his intention was not to demonize or express hatred towards another race but the language that is used and some of the ideas expressed as factual are often problematic and offensive. Unfortunately I think the heart of the problem here lies with the comments and statements made by Merrion.
While Merrion confesses that he cannot make claim to be ‘an Old China Hand’, he frequently makes sweeping assertions about the Chinese working classes. Because he is clearly presented as the voice of reason, to have him expressing views that Chinese laborers do not think logically, do not understand time or that they habitually lie to protect each other is harmful because they are being discussed as though they are scientifically based observations.
Street claims some of these traits are as a consequence of the different developments, circumstances and priorities of a culture and clearly wishes to emphasize the achievements of Chinese civilization. These sections read awkwardly and can be quite patronizing, if well-intentioned. The problem is that almost all of the characters we will be interacting with in the course of this story are from the working classes and so the views we hear most frequently are broadly negative.
In addition to being offensive, having Merrion make sweeping cultural statements also undermines the story’s denouement. In one of the crucial closing scenes, a character who is confronted with an accusation that they are aware cannot be proved, folds and confesses because of the ‘strongly defeatist element’ in the ‘Oriental temperament’. However you look at it, that is a poorly reasoned development in the story and an unsatisfying way to pull the case to a close.
Those of you who remember my review of George Bellairs’ Death of a Busybody will not be surprised that I did not care for the heavy use of Pidgin English by the working class Chinese characters throughout the novel. Unlike that novel, here at least the text is easily decipherable but it doesn’t help much with the feeling that the book is disrespecting a class of immigrant workers.
The Chinese Puzzle is a flawed work, albeit one which had an interesting premise. Sadly some of the choices Street makes undermine his handling of that idea, though I do find the tone of the aftermath of the reveal of the killer to be quite intriguing. While some clearly look at this book and see an aging writer churning out an old-fashioned story, I think Street was attempting to play off those tropes to create something different and more modern, even though he missteps in the execution of those ideas.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Has been on your TBR list (Why)